Keyboards spread pink eye

Whose been using your keyboard? This is what you’ll ask yourself after reading the following study about an outbreak of pink eye that spread through the use of shared keyboards.

In 2002, students at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire, were plagued by a conjunctivitis outbreak that researchers now believe spread through shared keyboards of university computers.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta were called in to investigate. Heading up the investigation was Dr Cynthia Whitney. They sent their findings in a letter to The New England Journal of Medicine. The original report appeared in the March 15, 2002, issue of the CDC’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report.

Recreating the scenario
In initial scans of about 40 to 60 keyboards taken during the outbreak, the CDC found no sign of conjunctivitis-causing bacteria. However, in later in-depth laboratory experiments, researchers used more sensitive detection techniques. They recreated the scenario by placing bacteria on a keyboard and they were later able to recover samples of the germs from the tainted keyboard.

Whitney says that her team is not sure whether the laboratory experiment mirrored what happens when people use keyboards in real life. Also if the CDC had used more sensitive culturing techniques on the university keyboards in the first place, they might have found the bacteria.

Go wash your hands
What it all boils down to is that the CDC is not yet sure if the keyboards are responsible for spreading germs. In the meantime, Whitney suggests that public computer users start practicing good hygiene, in particular regular hand washing.

Clean hands can prevent a lot more infections than just pink eye. Keyboards are no more likely than any other surface to spread germs. According to Whitney, many other pathogens, such as the ones that cause diarrhoea, skin infections, colds, flu and other respiratory infections, can survive for some time on surfaces.

A case in point is Japan, whose people managed to circumvent the recent deadly severe acute respiratory syndrome (sars) outbreak. Experts believe that the country remained sars-free thanks to a culture of good hygiene and regular hand washing.

How it spreads
Although relatively harmless, conjunctivitis is highly contagious. It can be caused by a virus or a bacterium and leads to inflammation of the eyelids. It spreads easily from person-to-person via contact with eye secretions, coughing and sneezing.

The Dartmouth outbreak occurred in the first two weeks of February 2002, during which time 100 students went to the varsity health centre with conjunctivitis. At first, experts thought the infections were viral, but were not sure because of the large number of cases. Eye cultures collected from 12 students revealed that a bacterium was responsible.

500 students infected
At the end of the outbreak it was estimated that 500 students (10% of the student body) had been struck down with pink eye.

Researchers are still not sure that the germs were spread via keyboards, because conventional wisdom holds that conjunctivitis-causing bacteria do not survive on surfaces. A letter from a Dartmouth student alerted authorities to the possibility of the keyboard spread. The student told the CDC that most students use the public computer terminals up to 20 times a day.


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